When best friends Becky Foresta, AIA, and Amy Conti enrolled in the architecture program at Lawrence Technological University in Michigan, they didn’t expect to spend their early professional years designing guardrails, public restrooms, and curb ramps. But when you work for Toronto-based NORR, and your client is CVS Health, designing those things puts you at the heart of the debate about accessibility and public health.
“We’re involved in a lot of projects that people don’t think about having architects involved in,” says Foresta, who works as a team leader on the CVS remodel program. “That’s probably 99 percent of the work we do so, yes, we design guardrails.”
And rarely do its designs receive the kind of recognition and praise that a beautiful home, museum, or landmark might.
“We probably spend at least 60 percent of our time talking about toilet-room design,” says Foresta, laughing. “It’s not glamorous, but that’s what the client needs, and that’s what the general public has demanded of the client.”
CVS operates more than 9,500 retail pharmacies throughout the United States. The company’s stores are located in a variety of markets—suburban, urban, and rural. Both Foresta and Conti work on the CVS remodel program, which covers the renovations of existing buildings.
“CVS has different types of remodels, so the scope can vary from project to project. The pharmacy remodel is actually done through the architects, so we coordinate really closely with the pharmacy operations,” says Conti, who has been working with CVS for eight years.
“You have to take inventory of everything and then be able to relocate that into the pharmacy,” Conti explains. “Details like: What furniture is there? Where exactly is it located? What kind of equipment is on top of the counter? What is below? How many refrigerators are required?”
New Markets, New Rules
CVS has store prototypes that they try to adhere to when designing and building new stores in new markets. Part of the challenge with expanding into new markets, though, includes adhering to city or county ordinances that demand a particular look and feel. Other challenges arise in trying to bring an existing building up to code, which is what Foresta and Conti deal with on a regular basis—hence their remarks on guardrails and toilet rooms.
Amanda Green, Assoc. AIA, and Stacey Hall, also work for NORR and are tasked with the specific challenge of building new CVS stores.
“Technically, I’m a designer, because I’m not licensed, but I essentially run my own projects,” says Green, who holds a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Idaho and serves as associate director for AIA Central Valley in California. “There are two of us—myself and Stacey. We split up the new store projects by region. I do all the projects in Utah and Southern California, while Stacey takes on the Washington state market and Northern California.”
As outlined in a recent New York Times article, CVS’s growth, acquisitions, and expansions have turned the chain into the country’s biggest operator of health clinics and pharmacies. The company’s expansion into new markets, like California and Washington, requires architects and designers like the women at NORR to be collaborative problem-solvers; not every building and space is exactly the same.
“We are also flexible, to accommodate local ordinances that may require changes to a store’s exterior architecture,” a spokesperson for CVS Health explains. “We also want to be a good neighbor in our communities, and we listen to local feedback about our design plans in order to make adjustments that are reasonable.”
For example, CVS pharmacy locations on the Las Vegas Strip, in a Manhattan office building, or at a suburban or rural intersection all have significant differences in their design because of the surrounding community.
“New markets provide us the opportunity for creativity, so I’m thankful to be placed on a team in a new market because there has to be a lot of design work,” says Hall, project architect for NORR. “One of the things that I like about working for CVS on the West Coast is that I actually get to design. There’s no way [city officials] were going to accept a prototype for CVS, so we get to do custom source and custom materials and plans.”
A large part of what Hall and Green do is a balancing act between city ordinances that work to keep a community’s environment intact, a national corporate brand that has a set of standards it must maintain, and the design and construction challenges of meeting the needs of every structure built.
Building Healthier Communities
Beyond construction, design, and code restrictions, there is also an aspect of social good to CVS’s growth, which is felt in the work that NORR architects are doing.
“I recently worked on a project in a community where the closest pharmacy was a three-hour drive away,” Foresta says. “There are patrons that strongly need these facilities in small communities where they don’t have other options. So it isn’t glamorous architecture, but at the end of the day the majority of the human experience is your day-to-day [buildings].”
What Foresta is describing is commonly referred to as “pharmacy deserts,” where residents in communities have little to no access to drugstores, and therefore no way to fill prescriptions or purchase over-the-counter medications. A recent study led by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that access to a pharmacy or drugstore plays a critical role in residents’ overall well-being.
Perhaps more significant is that these architects, each at different stages in their careers, are collaborating to not only deliver design solutions to a corporate client but also community solutions for a national health crisis.
“Buildings provide shelter, number one,” says Hall. “You’re either living or working there, and all of us live and work somewhere. It’s not glamorous, but the buildings provide things we need every day, on a day-to-day basis. It’s essential.”